Monday, May 14, 2012

Race and Cognition in D&D

In D&D, races have always represented a combination of species and culture. I'll ignore any ideas of racism per se, here, but it is 100% conceivable that a non-human sentient race would have different mental, physical, and cultural characteristics when compared to humans.

So should elves have a bonus to using longswords or bows? Should dwarves all speak dwarven? Should all half-orcs be poor leaders? I'd like to argue that this is an option that one should consider.

In terms of ability scores, I see no problem with racial bonuses or penalties to particular scores in and of themselves. If dwarves are heartier than humans, that can be represented with a constitution bonus, just as well as with a bonus to saves versus poison or with bonus hitpoints. I think the only valid objection to this is a world in which a) non-human races are just humans with pointy ears (typical of modern D&D), or b) ability scores are massively important to the point where a race's ability score bonus dramatically impacts class choice. The latter is easy to see: if high elves or gnomes are hands-down the best wizards in the game because of their +2 to intelligence, there will be a lot of pcs playing those races as wizards, and conversely few half-orc wizards if half-orcs have an intelligence penalty that makes them objectively the worst wizards. One might also create unintentional combinations, such as Dwarven Druids in 4e. For the former, I see a loss of verisimilitude. But what's worse, if the distinct races are all basically human and some have different physical or cognitive capabilities, then you are hard-coding some racist elements into the game. There may or may not be a place for this in the game, but its well worth thinking through the consequences.

In terms of racial aptitudes, it is clear that some races might have better eyesight or others stronger bodies (not to mention shorter or taller bodies). These should be reflected in the mechanics to some extent. Furthermore, its not out of the realm of possibility for races to have an aptitude with certain skills, and this includes combat skills. The mind of an elf may intuitively grasp the use of the longsword and bow or magic, just as dwarves can sense direction underground. I think some of these sorts of distinctions get lost in these politically correct days where elves and dwarves and humans have the same cognitive systems. So I'm all for letting elves be elves and men be men.

Racial penalties or restrictions further highlight the physical and cognitive differences between the species. As humans, we're inclined to see ourselves in others, this extends to animals and fantasy races. But why do we need to assume that elves have the same psychological needs as we do? Humans could be unique in their yearnings for love, or their faith in the divine. If this is the case, perhaps Elves have no clerics, though they might have Druids or Shamen. Likewise, its not inconceivable that dwarves or halflings have absolutely no talent for arcane magic and those classes could be banned or perhaps all dwarven wizards are first sorcerers (or potential sorcerers) with a demonic taint. The possibilities are endless, but restrictions (and their potential exceptions) can be tied closely to the setting.

In a fantasy world, I'm even willing to accept some fantastic ideas about language. While human language may work in certain ways (a massive topic for another time), it isn't clear that the speech of elves or dwarves needs to follow the same rules. Particularly when we imagine races like the Thri-kreen, a collective hive-mind with a fixed and stable language may be appropriate. Why do we assume Elves have the same cognitive machinery for language as humans do? Some of the "monstrous" races (orcs or bugbears perhaps?) might not even have full-fledged human languages. That's a bad trope in general ("cave-men" of various kinds and uncontacted people's language functions just like any other human language). This idea could be used to give a much darker shade to certain races. Perhaps half-elves tend to be religious hermits because of their human curiosity for the divine and the distrust of both their parent races? Perhaps half-orcs are only able to live if they can speak human language by their fifth birthday. Those that don't are considered too savage or dangerous to live. This way of thinking pushes the boundaries of language for me into more of a sci-fi realm than traditional fantasy, but I think its worth exploring. If Tolkien had been around today, it may even be something he might have considered in his own works.

Alignment, too, can be a racial property. This depends on how one defines alignment, however. But there's no reason that a fantasy setting might not have races which are born evil, and seemingly irredeemably so. It isn't hard to imagine either, as Catholic dogma of original sin does something similar. Human religions might make it easy to shake that originally evil alignment, but drow may have no access to this type of redemption since they were twisted by Lolth.

A game could even give suggestions for the exceptions. Perhaps an elf with religious aspirations had a drow or even human ancestor? A dwarven wizard might similarly have mixed blood or found a magic relic that allowed him access to the secrets of wizardry. Exceptions are still exceptions then, even if there are some guidelines for doing it.

A lot of these ideas goes beyond simple rules and into the domain of the game's setting. I can see how D&D Next will probably shy away from incorporating this into the game, because they have D&D's legacy and universality to consider as well. I, however, will be pondering this when the playtest materiel is released soon.

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